We Didn’t Start the Fire, It Was (Pretty Much) Always Burning

Tuesday, 21 April, 2015

In New South Wales there is a fire that’s been burning for about 5,500-6,000 years. We’re talking way back around 4000 BCE – a time when species as fundamentally Australian as dingoes either had not arrived or had just arrived in Australia. The fire, which is around 20-30 metres below the surface of Mount Wingen (meaning ‘fire’ in the local Aboriginal dialect), or Burning Mountain, is the longest continuously burning fire in the world.

Yes, there are more.

Scientists predict that there are 1,000 coal seam fires like the one beneath Mount Wingen burning on Earth at any one time.

Coal seam fires are a type of smouldering fire. Smouldering fires are ignited either by natural causes (like wildfires, lightning strikes or self-heating) or anthropogenic factors (such as arson, mining activities or waste incineration). The fire below Mount Wingen is believed to have been ignited by natural causes. If true, this would make it the only instance of a naturally burning coal seam fire in good old Straya, as well as one of only three such fires in the whole world.

The University of Edinburgh’s Guillermo Rein is quoted in The New York Times’ Dot Earth blog explaining that smouldering fires are a “slow, low-temperature, flameless form of combustion, [that] are an important phenomena in the Earth system, and the most persistent type of combustion”.

He continues: “The most important fuels involved in smouldering fires are coal and peat. Once ignited, these fires are particularly difficult to extinguish despite extensive rains, weather changes or firefighting attempts, and can persist for long periods of time (months, years), spreading deep (5 meters) and over extensive areas of forest subsurface. Indeed, smouldering fires are the longest continuously burning fires on Earth.”

The Mount Wingen fire was identified by a European farmhand named Smart in 1828. At the time it was assumed to be an active volcano due to the grey ash and smoke wafting from the mountain. As it turns out, Smart and co. had it all wrong. The fire was confirmed to be a coal seam fire the following year by geologist Rev. CP Neall Wilton.

Traditional Aboriginal owners, the Wanaruah people of the Hunter Valley, believe the fire is made from the tears of a woman who was turned to stone by the sky god, Biami, which is a far more eloquent explanation.

Since 1829, the fire has shifted south about 150 metres, moving at an average of around one metre per year.

From the 1890s to the 1960s, the sulphurous gasses emitted from the Mount Wingen coal seam fire were used to produce creams and liquids that were thought to have medicinal qualities. Today, you can do all sorts of touristy stuff there. You can trek along the walking tracks to reach the top of the mountain, or explore the history of the site and its surroundings.

The Mount Wingen coal seam fire is showing no signs of stopping and will probably outlive us all (not to mention our descendants) due to sheer endurance. Either that or it will grow tired of watching us humans infinitely fuck up and decide to engulf us all.